Observation & recording
Learning to scan the landscape and pick out essential information was a vital survival tool in human evolution, so it may seem unnecessary to teach students how to observe. But though we may be hard-wired to use our eyes efficiently, growing up in an industrialised society offers fewer opportunities to practice observation skills. Equally, ‘essential information’ is likely to be different in each disciplinary context.
Students in most disciplines need to develop observational skills, whether in relation to artefacts (eg in art, design, architecture, visual culture, design history, media studies), natural phenomena (eg geography, geology, physical sciences) or human subjects (eg medicine and other health professions, social sciences).
How can we as teachers help students to sharpen these abilities through looking exercises, for example, or clearer criteria and prompts to help them identify and focus on key aspects? Equally, how do students learn to record relevant data more accurately, and to evaluate the use of drawing, photography, and other graphic and verbal forms of notation as tools for recording?
Interventions that can help include:
• Checklists and mnemonics may help students to understand what is most relevant or significant - something that academics familiar with disciplinary priorities can take for granted and fail to make explicit. To see how a structured approach to observation can make a difference , take A Visual Literacy Exercise. This resource is based on selected woodblock prints from a famous 19th century series by the Japanese artist Hiroshige. Students are invited to examine a sequence of fifteen prints, complete a short exercise, review the print set a second time, and then complete a second exercise. This is followed by discussion of the implications for observation and analysis of visual materials of all kinds. Working through the exercise in full would take about 30 minutes.
• Recording what you see , through making written or dictated notes, sketches , photography, video or a combination of these.
Drawing is a particular valuable activity to improve observation skills, and can also help to reinforce learning or provide a tool for generating and communicating ideas. Resources and links to support the use of drawing can be found the Drawing section of this website. See also the following external resources:
Drawing, observation and recording
- Draw online workshop (aimed at adults aged 16 plus, includes plenty of drawing ideas, exercises and techniques). This is part of the generally excellent AccessArt website which also includes SketchbookSpace and other resources to support drawing.
- Visual Directions A resource produced by the University of the Arts to support the use of sketchbooks for developing and documenting ideas
- Observational skills for geoscience fieldwork Online tutorial and other resources
- Techniques for drawing botanical subjects under the microscope
- Looking vs. Seeing “A 15 Minute Tutorial on Getting the most out of your Microscope Viewing”
- Picturing to Learn This project involves science students and faculty from Harvard, MIT, Duke University and Roxbury Community College, and is part of the Harvard Envisioning Science Program. It enables undergraduate students to clarify their own understanding of scientific concepts and processes by making freehand drawings to explain these concepts to non-experts. These drawings are also used as assessment tools.